PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The state wants to prohibit new medical marijuana dispensaries from growing cannabis for the foreseeable future, with one significant exception: existing growers, called cultivators, can keep growing marijuana if they are issued a license to be a dispensary.
The proposal was included in a dense new set of regulations for the medical marijuana program released Thursday by the R.I. Department of Business Regulation. (The regulations are the subject of a lawsuit by Gov. Gina Raimondo’s administration, which has sued the state legislature for giving themselves veto power over the rules.)
The regulations also lay out the proposed process for issuing the highly sought-after licenses for six new dispensaries, known in Rhode Island as compassion centers.
Marijuana has been a cash cow for the three existing dispensaries, which brought in a combined $53 million in the last fiscal year based on tax revenues reported by the state.
The General Assembly passed a law earlier this year expanding the medical marijuana program from three compassion centers to nine. Lawmakers also raised the licensing fee to $500,000 per year.
Raimondo’s administration is proposing to do a lottery of all compassion center applicants who meet the qualifications, based on six newly defined zones throughout the state. One applicant from each zone will be pulled from the lottery. (Whether the state will pull ping-pong balls from a hopper or use another randomizing method is still to be determined.)
Businesses applying to open dispensaries can submit an application for multiple zones, but will have to pay the $10,000 application fee each time. (If a dispensary is pulled as a winner of the license lottery more than once, the owners will need to choose just one location.)
Cities and towns in Rhode Island can allow or prohibit marijuana businesses through their zoning ordinances. Warwick currently has the most marijuana licensees, with 30 approved cultivators and one dispensary, Summit Medical Compassion Center.
The towns of Coventry, Johnston, Lincoln, North Kingstown, Smithfield and Tiverton don’t currently have zoning for medical marijuana, according to a spokesperson for DBR.
The other two existing dispensaries are the Thomas C. Slater Compassion Center in Providence and Greenleaf Compassionate Care Center in Portsmouth.
The state is not yet accepting applications for the six new dispensaries, but Raimondo’s top marijuana regulator Norman Birenbaum has said about 30 people have already called to inquire about applying.
The decision to ban new marijuana businesses from growing pot is a win for existing cultivators, 51 of which have licenses to grow marijuana with only three current dispensaries where they can sell their product. The existing dispensaries are allowed to grow marijuana and will be able to continue doing so under the proposed regulations.
Cultivators will also be allowed to apply to be compassion centers, which would allow them to continue growing marijuana under their current license while also dispensing marijuana to patients. (Cultivators on their own are not allowed to sell marijuana to patients directly.)
“We are thrilled to see that DBR took such a comprehensive and mindful approach to these regulations, especially considering the industry conditions,” said Katie Sokol Ratkiewicz, president of the Rhode Island Cannabis Association. “These regulations will level the playing field for all cannabis industry stakeholders, creating a more fair and transparent process for all. Today is a good day for RI small businesses.”
Rhode Island House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello had a colder reaction to the proposed regulations.
“It appears that the regulations may not be consistent with the intent of the law passed by the General Assembly and signed by the governor,” Mattiello said in a statement. “The House will be reviewing the hundreds of pages of regulations and will be following the public hearing process on this issue.”
Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said the Senate’s lawyers would also be reviewing the draft rules.
The proposal also restricts some home growing, by preventing patients who grow marijuana at home from also registering with a caregiver. Caregivers are allowed to grow marijuana at home for patients but aren’t necessarily patients themselves.
New caregivers would also be restricted to having just one registered patient under the regulations, which limits their plant count to 12. Existing caregivers would keep their patients, even if they have more than one.
Under the new rules, caregivers who have a patient with a “hardship” would no longer have the pay the $25 fee to tag each plant.
The state will accept public comment on the draft regulations until Dec. 21, and a public hearing will be held on Dec. 6 at Rhode Island College.